Art

The Three Graces Have Inspired Centuries of Artists, from Botticelli to Picasso

Raphael, The Three Graces, 1504. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Raphael, The Three Graces, 1504. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Creative freedom and originality can begin with old tropes. Working from age-old stories, artists make readymade subject matter distinctly their own. Such is the case for millennia of artists who have rendered the Three Graces in their work. Towering figures from to have proven the timelessness of the gorgeous triumvirate, which they’ve interpreted in their own unique styles.
In many ways, the Graces are an ideal aesthetic subject. According to classical lore, the group of minor goddesses—part of Aphrodite’s retinue—consists of Euphrosyne (joy), Thalia (bloom), and Aglaia (elegance or brightness). Together, they personify grace, beauty, and charm. While their attractiveness and rich symbolism make them easy artistic targets, the mythological characters also come in that most magical number—three. Visual harmony is nearly built into their likeness. Taking these three glamorous figures as a starting point, artists are already at an advantage to create a pleasing, balanced composition—a perennial goal across cultures and modalities.
Marble Statue Group of the Three Graces,  2nd century A.D. Roman copy of a Greek work of the 2nd century B.C. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Marble Statue Group of the Three Graces, 2nd century A.D. Roman copy of a Greek work of the 2nd century B.C. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns an early sculptural example from the 2nd century C.E., discovered under Roman streets in 1892. The unknown artist carved the Graces in marble; they stand in elegant, dynamic . They’re arranged in a line, two facing forward and one backward, with their arms draped around each other. Cloth-draped urns bookend the figures, who stand atop a platform. Lacking heads and significant distinguishing characteristics, the Graces are less individuals than they are compositional elements—subjects for the artist to manipulate into the most pleasing configuration of ideal beauty.
The Met sculpture is a copy of an artwork—evidence of a widespread Roman craze for all things . A reverence for the past also dominated the : From the 14th through 17th centuries, European artists looked back to the Greek and Roman glory days. Three of the era’s most important painters (Botticelli, , and ) all captured the Graces in their canvases to very different effect.
Botticelli famously depicted the Graces as part of a larger ensemble scene. One of his most beloved paintings, Primavera (ca. 1482), shows the trio wearing diaphanous dresses as they move in a circle. They’re situated in the middle of an intricately decorated forest. A colorful assortment of fruits and flowers adorn the grass below them and the canopy above. The Graces share the scene with six other mythological figures, including Venus, Mercury, and Cupid. According to Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, where the canvas hangs, the painting’s meaning remains a mysterious “celebration of love, peace, and prosperity.” In her 1997 book Botticelli, Elena Capretti writes that the Graces each wear a jewel from the Medici family, who commissioned the painting, and “allude to generosity and to the ability to exchange gifts in a sort of circle of give and take which is typical of love and culture.” (Just a few years later, Botticelli returned to the subject with yet another ensemble scene, Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman, ca. 1483–85.)
The Italian master Raphael and artist Lucas Cranach the Elder similarly represented the Graces in a circular arrangement. In The Three Graces (1504–05), Raphael situated the figures at the foreground of a multilayered, pastoral landscape. Each holds a circular object, alternately identified as apples or golden orbs. For his iterations on the theme, Cranach rejected pastoral settings in favor of monochromatic backdrops. He distinguished his Graces with different hairstyles—blonde ringlets hang from one of the goddesses’s heads, while another wears a hat. While Raphael’s Graces look like triplets, Cranach’s hint at individuality.
During the period—itself a kind of 20th-century Renaissance—artists again adopted the Three Graces as a subject. In 1923, Picasso painted them in grisaille, or grayscale. Scholars believe that his Three Graces inspired his 1925 canvas, The Three Dancers. In other words, working with an ancient trope probably enhanced his ability to construct a thoroughly modern composition. As Helen Little wrote for the Tate’s blog, “the figures appear more classical in form, with rounded limbs in balletic poses.” Yet their fractured, abstracted bodies reveal a new way of looking at the world.
In 1999, towards the end of her life, the French artist offered a female perspective on the Graces. For years, she’d been making “Nanas,” or colorful, large-scale sculptures with exaggerated female forms. Les Trois Grâces (1999) consists of three mosaic-ed Nanas with black, white, and yellow bodies, all in brightly-patterned clothing, dancing in a circle. Sited in the yard of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., the sculpture celebrates femininity and reclaims the symbolic, often sexualized figures through a feminist lens.
Contemporary artists with global perspectives have similarly found conceptual potential in the Three Graces. has reimagined them as three black men in athletic tees (Three Graces, 2005). He revisited the subject in 2012, painting the figures as thinner, younger men in jeans. Dense patterns overlay both iterations, harkening back to decorative art-historical motifs. The paintings ask viewers to rethink their conceptions of the ideal form: What if ultimate beauty and virtue resides in African-American men?
American photographer , for his part, challenged rigid definitions of gender in The Three Graces, New Mexico (1988). His gelatin print imagines the Graces as masked, intersex figures. ’s 2001 sculptures of the Graces feature three headless female figures draped in printed cotton textile. The British-Nigerian artist used patterns that refer to an intercontinental trade that allowed Western nations to colonize the design traditions in the lands they invaded.
Over the centuries, depictions of the Three Graces have become less about fealty to legend. Instead, they’re representations of what societies and individual artists find virtuous and beautiful. As long as moral and aesthetic perceptions continue to shift, the Graces will remain potent subject matter, endlessly renewable for an ever-diversifying group of artists.
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.